In July 2020, we took a look at our lives. There were three things keeping us from moving forward - rural living, natural disasters, and not enough money. This led us to a big project that began in July 2020 and is ongoing: Moneyball for cities. 83 places. 43 data points. And our new home.
I fell in love with Sonoma County, California in 2011 when an old college friend and his wife asked if I wanted to help them start a theatre company there. The gentle beauty of the land and the warmth of the community there had me at hello, so it felt right that, during another summer with the theatre company in 2013, I made the decision to stay there instead of returning to Los Angeles. My Facebook post that day read, “I think I’m done with city life.” That’s about all the thought and intention that went into my move and I think that that worked for that season of my life — single, child-free, and in an as-yet-to-be-clearly-envisioned career transition that I wanted to involve producing. I had spent my late teens through mid-thirties as a successful actor working in a mix of Broadway shows, regional theatre, films, TV shows, commercials, and comedy theatres. I had been able to buy a home in Los Angeles after the housing bubble burst in 2008, but losing that in a failed first marriage had me turning romantic eyes toward an illusion of simple country living. And wine. The living turned out to be not so simple, but the wine — delicious!
Fast forward to present day — I’m remarried with two kids and a homeowner again, and feeling the impacts of both the challenges of rural living and four natural disasters — it was clear that what worked for the previous season of life wasn’t working for this one and a new approach was needed in deciding what adventure would be next.
What is arts vibrancy?
Not really knowing where to start, I googled, “what is arts vibrancy,” looking for a way to articulate my feeling. What I found was data, and in the data, a direction. SMU (Southern Methodist University) DataArts releases an annual study that looks to define and measure arts vibrancy in U.S. communities on three levels — independent artists living and working in a community, local arts nonprofits and arts businesses, and national and federal arts dollars and support coming into a community — and with that data they release an annual ranking of large, mid-size, and small communities in the U.S. in their Arts Vibrancy Index.
I was able to see immediately that my feeling was right — Sonoma County, CA was not identified as an arts vibrant community. What had once been a rural escape for hippies and artists in the 1970s and ’80s had fully transitioned into a luxury tourist destination and retiree community. Largely, the people who have the money to spend on arts and culture made their money elsewhere. The sister industries of tourism and wine are largely comprised of low paying jobs in a place with a very high cost of living, a cost of living rising more quickly each year as the already limited supply of housing burns down with each fire season. The two most common conversations in the local Facebook moms’ groups were “what is this rash?” and “whelp, we’re moving out of state — we can’t make this work anymore.” A lot of the most successful or Insta-famous people in food, wine, and the arts who didn’t come from wealthy families or make a fortune elsewhere had semi-secret other jobs that actually paid the bills and a healthy work-life balance or integration was far out of sight. The artists who were able to make their American Dream happen had done so in the ’70s when the cost of living was reasonable and were now in their 70s. We felt lucky to own a home — I’m Gen X but married to a millennial — but we have millennial friends here with their dream jobs and homeownership for them is still out of reach. Some have opted to not have children not necessarily because they don’t want them, but because of the cost. I had given up the idea of having a second child. Arts organizations heavily compete for funding from a small community of older, wealthy donors because the pathways towards the actual business being financially sustainable through sales have dried up along with the land. The art and systems of delivery become limited by the tastes and understanding of a single generation, race, and class of people that isn’t reflective of most of the community.
Fires and Floods
In 2015, climate change took an extreme turn and fires began coming with increased frequency and intensity and for a longer portion of the year. Each year broke the records set the year before. In February 2019, we got five feet of water at our home in the largest flood in 24 years.
Even through all this difficulty, I managed to found a comedy festival. I had spent three years on the roster of Amy Poehler’s comedy collective, Upright Citizens Brigade, in Los Angeles, performing and writing sketch comedy, improv, and musical comedy. In 2015, I started a comedy festival that featured 100+ sketch, improv, stand-up, and musical comedians. I made the specific choice to build it for the broader community — one could see a comedy show and grab a beer for $20. You didn’t have to be among the wealthy to afford it and there was no class system built in — no VIP experience.
The festival was well attended, an immediate success, and made a modest profit in its second year. In its third year, four days before the festival, on the precipice of it becoming a large financial success, it burned down in the 2017 Tubbs Fire. My husband and I were new parents. Instead of realizing the success, I went tens of thousands of dollars in debt as I refunded tickets and paid my staff. We went from a dual income family to a one income family. We couldn’t afford childcare, so now I couldn’t work, and I couldn’t rebuild the business. Crucial business development that I had been intentional about completing before becoming a parent would have needed to be redone, as our sponsor network collapsed when many of those businesses burned down or closed. A local hotel that had offered us housing sponsorship for our comedians had burned down. One of our tentpole alcohol sponsors had gone out of business. I still occasionally get emails asking for ticket refunds, and I log into the old ticket system and send them a screenshot of the 2017 refund. How much must one be financially suffering that one seeks a moment of relief in a 2017 comedy show ticket refund that one hopes is still outstanding? The suffering and loss affected everyone in some way even if everything in your immediate sphere remained intact.
Rural Parenting Is Hard
I had found parenting in a small town that neither my husband or I are from to be very difficult. Because we were among the only people in our network of friends in Sonoma County who wanted children, we weren’t a part of a community of parents and didn’t benefit from the wisdom and support that can come from such a community. We learned (too late!) that families need either helpful family who lives nearby, a community of parent friends who help each other, or the ability to purchase the help a family needs. We didn’t have helpful family nearby. We didn’t have a community of parent friends nor the ability to create that for ourselves at that time. Because of the negative impact on our family finances that the Tubbs fire created, we often didn’t have the money to purchase help, but what we found during the times that money was available was that the help just didn’t exist in a remote town of 4500 largely retirees and gay couples there to live the wine country lifestyle. For the first two years of parenthood, we found occasional help from a town bartender who had seen seven months of my Facebook pleas, and she said she was available for a few hours a few days per week. Because the only childcare we ever found was also a town bartender, my husband and I have only been on four dates in four years.
With the help of our wonderful bartender nanny, I went on to start a film and live events company, but had to keep canceling events and activities due to subsequent fires and floods. I was paying to produce events that either weren’t happening due to natural disasters or paying to produce events twice to do them once. Our bartender nanny was going back to school. An angel investor came forward and offered to cover the cost of an au pair. Andra joined us from China shortly after our daughter’s second birthday.
Then the pandemic hit. Andra happened to be back home with her family on her scheduled vacation for the Lunar New Year when the pandemic broke out and borders closed. Childcare was gone. The pandemic put aspects of our lives that I had taken as fact and put them on the table for re-examination. I had fallen in love with, married, and started a family with a local man in the wine industry. I realized how much I had been trying to make living here work because I think I thought that I had to live here. Maybe I didn’t.
Dreams, Data, and Direction
Empowered by the SMU DataArts Arts Vibrancy Index, I told my husband, Scott, that I wanted to leave Sonoma County — that I had lived the rest of my adult life in thriving, supportive, supported, age/racially/ethnically diverse arts communities and that was now sorely missing from our lives in Sonoma County. He heard me and suggested that we clear the calendar for a few days to be really intentional about exploring this. I was grateful (and relieved!) that he was open to the idea of a new adventure, which would likely mean a career change for him.
As these cleared days approached, we arrived on a starting point for a process. Day One was our Day of Dreams. We wrote all of our dreams on sticky notes that we revealed to each other one by one. Because we’re married and enjoy each other, we wrote a lot of the same ones. They related to our relationship, career development, friends and family, the family we hoped to grow, personal development, financial goals, and travel. It became clear pretty quickly that we weren’t living in a place with a supportive path toward those dreams for the whole family, although we were in the best place in America for my husband’s career. We were surviving, but certainly not thriving.
The next day, we made a list of eighty three arts vibrant U.S. communities — well, seventy nine, but we put a few others in there as a point of comparison — our current town — Guerneville, the county seat and largest local city — Santa Rosa, my hometown — Waterbury in Connecticut, and two California cities not on the Arts Vibrancy Index — Sacramento and Davis. We included communities from other sources as well (sources listed below). Somewhere on this list was a community (or many!) that would set us up for success in making our intentionally stated dreams happen. A Day of Places.
Day three was our Day of Data. My husband, Scott, dug around and found BestPlaces.net, a site with cost of living and demographics data for most of the places our list, and other data sources relating specifically to families. We collected data from several sources that we thought could give us an idea of how these communities might rank in these categories — arts vibrancy, home value, family friendliness, climate comfort and climate change resilience, and land availability and freedom of use. We gathered forty-three data points in these categories. We talked about personal preferences. We found that we didn’t want to be cold (sorry, Ann Arbor!), so a cold place had to be really nailing it for us in our areas of interest. We decided that the cost of living had to be equal to or lower our current costs but offer us all the things we felt our current home was missing — that elusive vibrant arts community, a supportive infrastructure and community for families with small children, and fewer natural disasters. We created a ranking and compiled a report on our top twenty communities.
- Austin, TX
- Nashville, TN
- Durham, NC
- Atlanta, GA
- Portland, OR
- Seattle, WA
- Richmond, VA
- New Orleans, LA
- Minneapolis & St. Paul, MN
- Denver, CO
- Kansas City, MO
- Charlottesville, VA
- Tucson, AZ
- San Diego, CA
- Tacoma, WA
- Albuquerque, NM
- Asheville, NC
- Bremerton, WA
- Charleston, SC
- Salt Lake City, UT
Day four became our Day of Emotions. What had become clear was that, at this point in our process, we had a lot to move away from but hadn’t yet clearly seen where or what we were moving to. Months went by and we sat with it all. Another fire season came — earlier and longer than prior years with more evacuations and power outages that cost us more money, time, and the life of one of our beloved pandemic chickens.
Art as a Sustainable Business
I had been working on a new arts company concept and had gotten a little more than a year into the beta test of it at this point but had been repeatedly sidelined by natural disasters. I looked for data that could help me find a place on our list that would set that idea up for success. It’s a subscription model that includes filmmaking, events, live entertainment, and community building focused on local residents instead of tourists, so I gathered info on what I thought might be an equivalent enough data point — live theatre subscriber data — and found it to be pretty consistent nationwide. A successful theatre can expect to make a subscriber base of .87% of the size of the population that lives within thirty minutes of the theatre. This told me that we needed a minimum population of 360,000 people who live within thirty minutes of our event hub. Goodbye, Asheville! And Goodbye, Sonoma County. In order to make the new company concept work in Sonoma County, I was having to piece together a sizeable enough population among rural towns that spanned more than two hours of driving. Every event essentially had to be a mini-tour. I was doing triple the amount of work than would be needed in a place that simply had enough people living there to sustain it. Put that together with new parenthood, fires, and floods, and it just wasn’t working.
Taking out the places without a sizable enough population and the very cold places, now the list was narrowed down to these:
- Austin, TX
- Nashville, TN
- Raleigh-Durham, NC
- Atlanta, GA
- Portland, OR
- Seattle, WA
- New Orleans, LA
- Kansas City, MO
- Tucson, AZ
- San Diego, CA
- Albuquerque, NM
The Arts Dollars
I also felt like I could see, as I sat with the data, that I could sort arts vibrant communities into two categories — donor supported and community sustained. Some places have economic conditions that require the arts to be donor supported because the costs of production are high, there isn’t a skilled enough and hirable arts workforce, and/or there isn’t a sizable enough population with high enough income to support the art through sales alone. Some places have a large enough population paired with a diversity of industries with high paying jobs, creating stable conditions that allow an arts business to be sustained by people who have arts and culture dollars to spend, and the community supports the art through their purchases. The art I want to make and business I want to build would best thrive under community sustained conditions.
We gradually narrowed down the list to Nashville, Austin, Portland, Seattle, Raleigh-Durham, Richmond, and Denver. We have friends that had moved to all of these places and we talked to a lot of them. We narrowed our focus to Nashville or Austin. I joined several Facebook moms’ groups in both Nashville and Austin. I came to Nashville more quickly than my husband. The cost of a home in the part of Austin we’d want to live in was much higher than the equivalent neighborhood in Nashville. Nashville seems like it has a nice balance of city living — with both culture and convenience — and small town feel. I wanted to be closer to my family in Connecticut. Scott has family in Wisconsin and Mississippi. We can easily get to other vibrant arts communities. If we went to Texas, we’d only be close to more Texas.
On our dream board was “another child” and once we decided that we were moving somewhere, we decided to get on that one and spend the rest of the pandemic growing our family during a time when I really couldn’t do anything other than be a childcare-less pandemic mom. I became pregnant via IVF in November. I was antsy to pick a place because I didn’t want to be moving with a newborn. Gradually, I noticed Scott mentioning Nashville more and I gently nudged. We decided on Nashville. Within two days I had found us a local rental to live in while renovating our house for a good sale, a local real estate agent, a Nashville real estate agent, a Nashville rental to land in and welcome baby while we house hunt there, and a highly recommended Nashville OB/GYN.
We arrived in Nashville on June 21, 2021, exactly one month before we welcomed our son. Then shortly after, a TV show I had been developing with dear friends got greenlit and we took off to Europe for seven months. We returned from Europe just after Thanksgiving 2022.
We've just purchased a home here in Nashville, in the center of an arts-rich neighborhood. Our daughter has just completed her first year at a dreamy school. I plan to resume building my company in Nashville in 2024, where it will benefit from a sizable population with arts and culture dollars to spend and a skilled local workforce.
I did love living in Sonoma County. It’s breathtakingly beautiful with warm communities and towns. The food and wine are among the best in the world. The land is powerful and breathtaking. It’s no surprise that it’s been a draw for centuries of various spiritualities. Most importantly, I found my family. Some places are right for a season of our lives, and when it was right, it was right. Now we’re in a new season.
Nashville so far is exceeding our expectations. It's rich with culture and history and on the precipice of major investment and development. Different from more established cities like NYC & L.A., there’s a sense of excitement and optimism here around what this city will become next.
We’re developing a course out of our Moneyball for cities to help you identify what is important to you and find a place that will best set you up for success.
Thanks for reading. Join the mailing list (on the homepage) or follow me on social media (top left of this page) so that you’ll know when our Moneyball for cities is ready.
But the most important reason why I’m sharing our story is to tell you, dear Reader, that there is a place out there with good conditions to help you realize your dreams, and that you can replicate our process, looking at the data that relates to what is important to you. Go forth, live your life, make your dreams come true, and please tag me when you share your story!
SMU DataArts Arts Vibrancy Report — 2017, 2018, 2019
Americans for the Arts
Best Places (we have a paid account)
Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University
Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker, 2020
Staff Me Up’s Top Cities in the U.S. For Film and TV Production
Livability’s 6 Great Cities for Filmmakers (That Aren’t New York or L.A.)
Actors Equity Regional Theatre Report
Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-GAIN) Urban Adaptation Assessment
Top 100 Family Friendly— This site has two different family friendly lists — one for big/popular locations and a more comprehensive list that includes suburbs and small communities.
Top 100 Cities for Raising a Family
The Street’s Best Cities for Live Music
Thrillist’s Great American Cities for Creatives (That You Can Actually Afford To Live In)
America’s 12 Greatest Music Cities, Ranked
Ten Best Music Cities in the U.S.
The 9 Best Cities for Singer-Songwriters
11 Top Cities for Music That Aren’t New York or L.A.
14 Thriving American Theatre Districts
11 Best Places to Start an Acting Career (That’s Not LA, NYC, or London)
Best Theatre Cities in the U.S.
5 Cities Outside of NYC Where You Can Pursue a Career in Theatre